Tuesday, August 28, 2007

[081] LIFTED or The Story Is In The Soil,
Keep Your Ear To The Ground

Album: LIFTED or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground
Artist: Bright Eyes
Release Date: August 2002
Label: Saddle Creek
Producer: Mike Mogis

“…Because I don’t know what tomorrow brings. It’s alive with such possibilities.
All I know is I feel better when I sing. Burdens are lifted from me,
That’s my voice rising!
So, Michael, please keep the tape rolling. Boys, keep strumming those guitars.
We need a record of our failures. Yes, we must document our love…”
- from “Method Acting”

In preparing to write this entry, I pulled LIFTED off the shelf about 10 days ago. It had been a while since I visited Conor Oberst’s breakthrough album. I had forgotten how big it is. It manages to be a punk record and a jam record, a protest album and a heartache album, but more than anything it’s a verbose collection of observations and questions. There’s so much to take in, at some points I had to listen to it in bursts of 2 or 3 songs for fear of missing or forgetting something. I can tell you – I knew I was going to have trouble writing this. But then I thought about the fact that this was his moment to be found, and critics soaked paper in ink for this album. They wrote about it, so what is my problem? I decided that I didn’t want to feel obligated to throw Oberst into “The Next Dylan” waiting room, which I think is the easy-way-out that many music writers took. But it’s a difficult dilemma, because for all your Springsteens, Costellos, Mellencamps, Ryan Adamses, and countless others who’ve gotten that tag but didn’t really sound like Mr. Zimmerman, Conor Oberst, on this album, does truly recall Bob Dylan; and not just popular mid-60’s heyday Dylan, but almost all of Dylan. He pulls equally from the early protest songs (“Don’t Know When…”, “The Big Picture”), the weird pop hits (“You Will…”, “Bowl Of Oranges”), the old Country & Western (“Make War”, “Laura Laurent”), the surreal introspection (“Waste Of Paint”, “From A Balance Beam”), the broken-hearted ballads (“Lover I Don’t Have To Love”, “Nothing Gets Crossed Out”), and the epics (“Let’s Not Shit Ourselves”), but all in his own voice. Oberst is more like Dylan when he just sounds like himself. And when you realize how young he was in 2002 (21 years old during recording), it places the entire landscape of post-emo youth music in proper perspective; Fall Out Boy quite obviously become The New Monkees, and you wonder why they don’t already have their own show on Fuse.

“The Big Picture” is Oberst stripping himself of his 4-track bedroom past; arranged to sound like an acoustic home recording on a cassette given to friends as a gift, it plays in the car stereo of Blake from Rilo Kiley as bandmate Jenny Lewis gives directions & sings along in the passenger seat. But as the song progresses, the driver and passenger fade, then the muffled tape becomes clear, until you’re left with just the voice and guitar, as to say “Welcome. Enjoy the ride”. LIFTED then explodes with the grand “Method Acting”, riding a military march, the closest thing on the album to Conor’s side project Desaparecidos, before the new model Bright Eyes emerges with the swinging classicism of “False Advertising”; it’s the sound of a young man with a wealth of ideas, and he needed a couple dozen friends to make them work. The loose community at work here gives the album a remarkable depth. From the screw-up in “False Advertising” to the drunken rodeo bar sing-alongs of “Make War” and “Laura Laurent”, to the all-together-now finale of “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves”, there is the laidback feel of a D.I.Y. aesthetic and childlike experimentation that can only come by filling a room with not only your peers but also your friends. The Bright Eyes “choir” is mostly drunk and sound as if they were recorded in the local High School assembly hall. But no matter how much arranging, wrangling, and conducting Oberst does, the songs are his because of the words.

Conor Oberst has a lot to say here, but the question is constantly what exactly is he saying? A song like “Waste Of Paint”, which in some ways is the centerpiece of the album, digresses so many times it comes full circle; you’re left to wonder if it is indeed artistic self-examination as it seems, or is it just random observations? It becomes clear very early on that not only does Oberst have a lot of things to talk about, but more importantly he has a lot of questions to ask, of lovers, of government, of religion, and he’s brimming with excitement or frustration or both. His questions aren’t rhetorical either; he asks because he doesn’t know the answers. His observations and ideas and calls for notice never have solutions or conclusions. He revels in punctuating them with to-be-continued’s. This is punk stretched to its very limits, punk in the same way that Dylan or Marvin Gaye or Public Enemy were punk, when the artist just can’t take anymore keeping quiet so they lash out, and the rebellion originates on a base level, from how they talk to the listener.

That’s a huge part of this record; it’s not who Conor Oberst is talking about (himself or his girl or his country), but who Conor Oberst is talking to. His voice is like an itchy trigger finger throughout; you never know when he may suddenly go off, grabbing the listener by the shoulders, screaming at the top of his lungs to be heard, shredding his vocal chords in the process. But it’s not just to be heard, it’s to hear; Oberst is still waiting for answers, and the majority of the record is about his feeling that he hasn’t gotten any that are satisfactory. He doesn’t want to know, he needs to know, and the ones that came before – teachers, parents, the various powers that be – appear to have fallen short. No matter the sound of the music, the root of punk is dissatisfaction with the shackles of society and with the information you’ve been fed up to that point; it’s the moment you decide that important knowledge is being neglected, ignored, or pushed aside, and secrets are being kept. With the world the way it is today, the next generation is going to get dissatisfied very quickly, and they’re going to need music of their own, to tell them they’re not alone. Dylan was it for one generation; Neil Young, The Clash, R.E.M., and Pearl Jam (among many others) have followed. Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst will be that for this generation, and LIFTED will be the album that they play for their kids, the rumor they cling to, the old friend they return to.

01. "The Big Picture"
02. "Method Acting"
03. "False Advertising"
04. "You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? Will."
05. "Lover I Don't Have To Love"
06. "Bowl Of Oranges"
07. "Don't Know When But A Day Is Gonna Come"
08. "Nothing Gets Crossed Out"
09. "Make War"
10. "Waste Of Paint"
11. "From A Balance Beam"
12. "Laura Laurent"
13. "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love And To Be Loved)"

"Let's Not Shit Ourselves..." [audio]

- BONUS: "Waste Of Paint" [live in Seattle]
This is the best clip, but embedding is unfortunately disabled.
- BONUS: "Bowl Of Oranges" [video]
- BONUS: "Lover I Don't Have To Love" [video]
Karaoke with Conor (yes, this is the real video)
- BONUS: "Don't Know When But A Day Is Gonna Come" [audio]
Set to a scene from the 2006 film, Children Of Men.


Anonymous said...

this makes me want to go home and pull this off the shelf.

Raz said...

Good. That's what I'm going for. When I went to Sean's place the other night, and he had Automatic For The People on top of his stereo. I guess I'm doing a good job.